How Dangerous is Biden State Department Nominee Sarah Cleveland?

By Stefano Gennarini, J.D. | January 27, 2022

The Biden administration has nominated pro-abortion law professor Sarah Cleveland to be the top legal advisor at the State Department. Pro-life people around the world should be very worried. Her nomination signals that the Biden administration is going to ramp up abortion advocacy domestically and abroad.

If Sarah Cleveland streamlines her views on abortion throughout the U.S. State Department then pro-lifers are in trouble. Hearings over her nomination were held this week, but Senators did not confront her views on abortion. It is possible that she will be asked to provide answers in writing.

Sarah Cleveland isn’t your garden variety pro-abortion law professor. There are many of those in the Biden administration. Cleveland has held important official positions within the United Nations human rights machinery and has used her authority to promote abortion as an international right. Specifically, Cleveland sat as a member of the Human Rights Committee, perhaps the most respected of all UN treaty bodies. While on the committee, Cleveland, not only pressured countries to nix protections for the unborn and allow abortion, she was also a protagonist in the process that led to the adoption of General Comment 36 by the Human Rights Committee. For those unfamiliar, a general comment is a legal commentary whereby UN treaty bodies expound what they believe the obligations of states are under the treaty in question. While it is not technically binding, it is treated as such by the UN human rights bureaucracy and UN agencies.

Below is paragraph 8 of General Comment 36, adopted by the Human Rights Committee in 2018, with Sarah Cleveland’s full support:

Although States parties may adopt measures designed to regulate voluntary terminations of pregnancy, such measures must not result in violation of the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, or her other rights under the Covenant. Thus, restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy. States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable. [8] In addition, States parties may not regulate pregnancy or abortion in all other cases in a manner that runs contrary to their duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, and they should revise their abortion laws accordingly. [9] For example, they should not take measures such as criminalizing pregnancies by unmarried women or apply criminal sanctions against women and girls undergoing abortion [10] or against medical service providers assisting them in doing so, since taking such measures compel women and girls to resort to unsafe abortion. States parties should not introduce new barriers and should remove existing barriers [11] that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion [12], including barriers caused as a result of the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers. [13] States parties should also effectively protect the lives of women and girls against the mental and physical health risks associated with unsafe abortions. In particular, they should ensure access for women and men, and, especially, girls and boys, [14] to quality and evidence-based information and education about sexual and reproductive health [15] and to a wide range of affordable contraceptive methods, [16] and prevent the stigmatization of women and girls seeking abortion.[17] States parties should ensure the availability of, and effective access to, quality prenatal and post-abortion health care for women and girls, [18] in all circumstances, and on a confidential basis. [19] (Human Rights Committee, General comment No. 36 (2018) on article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the right to life, UN Document CCPR/C/GC/36)

Just to be clear, no UN human rights treaty mentions abortion, let alone the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR for short. In other words, Cleveland supports not just judicial activism, but judicial activism on steroids with a global reach. She supports imposing an obligation with regards to abortion on all states parties to the ICCPR, even though Sovereign States never agreed to an international right to abortion in the treaty they painstakingly negotiated for over twenty years from 1948 to 1966. Not content to have judges impose abortion domestically, abortion activists have turned to people like Sarah Cleveland to impose abortion as a right on the entire globe. And Cleveland was vicious with anyone who disagreed with her on the committee. She was willing to attack the personal and professional integrity of a colleague because he dared to raise concerns about her abortion activism.

Cleveland’s overreach on abortion, while she sat on the Human Rights Committee, is especially significant if she is to take up the post of top legal adviser in the U.S. State Department. In that position, she will have a huge role to play in interpreting the obligations of the United States under international law. She will give instructions to U.S. diplomats based on those interpretations. For example, she could tell U.S. diplomats that abortion is a human right, and therefore they should include abortion laws in any human rights discussion whether bilateral or multilateral.

The U.S. government will ground its negotiations of any agreement involving human rights or health in her legal opinions, and it will report to international human rights bodies based on the interpretations Cleveland puts forth. For example, Cleveland may instruct U.S. diplomats that the next time France proposes that abortion is a human right in the Security Council, the U.S. government should support that position.

All foreign assistance programs will also come under her purview, calling into question the Helms Amendment, which prohibits the use of U.S. foreign assistance to fund abortion or abortion advocacy by foreign organizations. She may advise Secretary of State Blinken that the Helms amendment should be re-interpreted in order to align with her views on abortion in General Comment 36 of the Human Rights Committee. She may also be called upon to advise the White House on what the obligations of the U.S. government are under international law, and say that abortion must be allowed and funded by the U.S. government, as she did in General Comment 36 of the Human Rights Committee